Georgetown University did something remarkable this week. The university issued a set of plans to “reconcile” (quoting Georgetown President John J. DeGioia) its role in benefitting from slavery.
The plan is a response to work done by the institution’s “Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation” committee, convened in 2015. And it is part of a larger movement among colleges and universities to acknowledge their slave-holding pasts as well as how wealth from slavery built many of our nation’s greatest institutions. It also has implications for the larger conversation around what America as a whole should do to reckon with its history of enslaving black people.
Let me be clear: Excavating this history and acknowledging how it shapes present inequalities is important. In this context, Georgetown’s plan is a fine thing. It is not, however, reparations.
I make that claim because the counterclaim has been made. The Chronicle of Higher Education called the Georgetown plan “the university’s reparations.” Responding to a New York Times op-ed lauding Georgetown’s initiatives, Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote an article for the Atlantic two years ago calling for reparations, said, “it’s reparations.”
I’m a sociologist who studies and teaches inequality, especially as it relates to higher education. I support reparations for African Americans, similar to those paid to Japanese Americans, and all manner of other policies to redistribute wealth for a more just social contract. To understand why the Georgetown plan isn’t reparations, let’s begin with what it is.
Georgetown will name two buildings for black Americans, one an enslaved man and the other a free woman of color. The university will also extend preferred admissions status to the descendants of slaves who can be identified as those who provided uncompensated labor at the university. An institute will be established that will, in part, research those genealogies.
Now let’s talk about what the plan does not offer: any form of compensation for unpaid labor, in historical or current dollars or any in-kind payment. The Georgetown commission recommended tuition support, but there are no plans to do that at this time.
Reparations has three components: acknowledgement, restitution, and closure. The argument about whether Georgetown’s plan constitutes reparations hinges on the first two notions.
The first is that acknowledgement is a necessary condition of reparations. That is, the party who caused or benefits from the offense must acknowledge harm and accept responsibility for it. By this measure, one of the most amazing aspects of Georgetown’s plan is that it does that in unequivocal terms. President DeGioia couldn’t be more clear that the university “participated in the institution of slavery and benefitted” from the sale of slaves. In a nation in which many people still consider enslavement an unfortunate but at least expeditious route to citizenship for the enslaved, that is a strong statement.
But if reparations were merely acknowledging harm, the word would be redundant. What does reparations mean if it means something that includes acknowledgement but is also something more than acknowledgement?
That’s where the second condition for reparations comes in: Scholars who accept the idea of reparations (some do not) generally agree that reparations must be specific to the context and the type of harm caused. Georgetown could apologize for a great many harms related to racism. It could apologize for gentrification, for example, or hiring discrimination. All universities are guilty of this to some degree.
But Georgetown is specifically apologizing for slavery and its role in it. Georgetown has set the terms for the specificity of the claim: profiting from enslaved labor. Given these terms, set by the institution itself, the specific claim to reparations is uncompensated labor. Reparations would mean making recompense for this harm specific to the claim. Reparations means paying someone for that labor.
The idea that preferred admission equals payment stems from the American ideology that opportunity, especially educational opportunity, is a “fair” form of recompense. Opportunity has a moral basis: It will only be valuable for those who deserve it and will not inconvenience or harm those who already have the opportunity (whether they deserve it or not). Our society likes opportunity because it does not demand redistribution of resources acquired through harm. As you can tell, I’m not a fan of this logic. But even if I were, preferred admission doesn’t equate to much of an opportunity.
Preferred admissions gives a narrowly defined group of black descendants a chance to compete for achievements that are defined by accumulated disadvantage. The chance to be preferred in admissions to Georgetown still relies on racial differences in college preparation, racial wealth, and income gaps that condition the ability to pay college tuition, and racial gaps in knowledge about competitive college admissions. Preferential admissions says if you somehow manage to navigate all those other legacies of slavery — wealth disparities, income disparities, information disparities — then we will give you additional consideration in admissions. That is generous when judged by how little other universities have done but it is not much of an opportunity and it isn’t a form of payment at all.
Even if it were, there is the issue of education being equal to payment. It isn’t. As I have said many times, education is not and cannot ever be reparations. For African Americans, educational attainment makes us better off than the average African American — we earn more than lesser educated brethren and have better life outcomes and more income stability. But compared to whites who don’t have any college education, college educated blacks still have less income, less mobility, and less wealth.
For admissions to Georgetown to come close to equaling payment for unpaid labor, its credential would have to be worth its weight in income. The evidence suggests that for blacks that simply is not the case. An education buys one an extra chance at income and wealth. It doesn’t guarantee it. You don’t admit you owe someone money and repay them with lottery tickets.
Examples abound of what reparations could look like. It could be an endowment for every African American child born in the United States, as Darrick Hamilton and Sandy Darity argue in their “baby bonds” proposal. That kind of individual reparations plan would be paired with institutional reparations programs, including tuition assistance to colleges like Georgetown but also business financing and community development. The key to these plans is that they quantify the debt owed and then they pay it. Without restitution, acknowledgement cannot lead to closure. And without closure, reparations haven’t been made. And without reparations, true reconciliation — restoring wholeness — cannot happen.
If preferred admissions isn’t reparations, it is as a type of affirmative action. In fact, it is odd that so many media outlets stretched to call Georgetown’s plan reparations when it so closely resembles affirmative action policies. Even the language of “legacy admissions,” the concept this plan expands to include the descendants of the enslaved, comes from affirmative action frameworks.
This is, at best, a specific narrow case of affirmative action, repurposed to address a problem rooted in claims to reparations. To call affirmative action reparations is to extend the moral superiority of the latter to the mundane application of the former. If universities want credit, spiritual and political capital, for doing reparations, they should have to actually do reparations. Anything less than that merely rebrands one accomadationist policy for another, gutting each one’s revolutionary potential for real reconciliation and recompense.
If we call everything reparations, then nothing is reparations. And maybe, for some, that is the point.
Tressie McMillan Cottom, PhD, is an assistant professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University and faculty associate with Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Millions List, a leader in publishing, named her book Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy one of the most anticipated nonfiction books of 2016.